Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Who Alone Was Great

Today, marking the official Remembrance Day, I tried explaining what it was all about to a group of school children before the 11 O'clock silence.

The only way I could think of to put the losses in context for them, was to describe the 'Pals' units of the First World War. "Imagine", I said, "if you all decided to go to war together, some of these young soldiers barely older than you; all the young men of a town joining up for a single great adventure, which unless they were quick, might be over by Christmas."

Then, I told all the boys in the room to stand up and then made them all sit down except for a handful. "Now imagine, I said, "that the boys left standing up were the only ones left alive from your class at the end of the war and those sitting down are among the names written on the town's war memorial."

This seemed to make it easier for them to grasp and let me lead the discussion on the Second World War and Afghanistan today.

But talking about the sacrifices now being made by our armed forces, also reminded me of two excerpts from T.E. Lawrence's (of Arabia) 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' writing on a different war:

'The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.'

And ..

'The Bedouin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God. He could not conceive anything which was or was not God, Who alone was great; yet there was a homeliness, an everyday-ness of this climatic Arab God, who was their eating and their fighting and their lusting, the commonest of their thoughts, their familiar resource and companion, in a way impossible to those whose God is so wistfully veiled from them by despair of their carnal unworthiness of Him and by the decorum of formal worship. Arabs felt no incongruity in bringing God into the weaknesses and appetites of their least creditable causes. He was the most familiar of their words; and indeed we lost much eloquence when making Him the shortest and ugliest of our monosyllables'.

It's almost one hundred years since Lawrence fought his way across the deserts of Trans-Jordan, Palestine, Syria and what is now Saudi Arabia and another sixty years since my uncle, then an officer in the Gurkhas, was fighting on the same North-west frontier that our own soldiers are trying to hold today, with the same level of success. Little has changed it seems in all that time. The same deeply held religious conviction of the people who would resist us and the seeming futility of trying to win that same piece of barren, mountainous land fought over by Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, the British Empire and the Soviet Empire.

It seems that the personal sacrifices and lessons of history and Afghanistan are quite lost on a Government that clearly doesn't read it. I do wonder if a single Minister has ever read the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.


Anonymous said...

Your comments are poignant and well made.

"The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history".

A very relevent statement variously attributed to Friedrich Hegel, W.S.Churchill, and George Bernard Shaw!

To quote a more modern author!

"Our Vietnam!"

Anonymous said...

anon again!

It's a bit like living in Thanet then isn't it.

I met a Thanet born & bred 'lady' this evening who was talking about the recession. She said she hadn't noticed any financial difference this year, to any other year, as widely broadcast. So, she assessed that Thanet had been in recession all that time, and so the 'recession' remained un-noticed.